Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Summer of My Shakespeare

Summer is upon us, which means Shakespeare is in the air. If you're new to Shakespeare, or if you've been warned off Shakespeare as too difficult, or if you adore Shakespeare, you've come to the right place. Literally and bloggily. Our particular story is set in fair Stonington where, for more than 10 years, the Stonington Opera House has been creating Shakespeare productions that reach out to audiences in accessible and thought-provoking ways. I'm on record saying so during the years I spent as the Bangor Daily News arts critic. Now as critic-in-residence for the Shakespeare summer productions at OHA, I get to say it all over again in a variety of ways. And I have help. I'm joined this year by two Deer Isle-Stonington High School student bloggers -- Ann Dunham and Sasha Zembrusky -- in an exploration of all things Bard. Our show is Much Ado About Nothing, which is running in repertory with a contemporary play called Elizabeth Rex. (More on that in another post.)

To get started in our Much Ado journey -- and really any Shakespeare play -- you'll find seven steps for a power workout before attending a Shakespeare play Admittedly, I'm a geek when it comes to this topic. So the list may be overkill for some readers. You don't have to do everything on this list. And, most important, you don't have to do anything on this list to have fun at the shows. For me, more is always more. So I offer....more.

1. Read the play. Taking the time to read the actual script can familiarize you with Shakespeare's meter and some of the more obscure language so you're not guessing what every word means when you see the show. You can find these plays ... er ... nearly any place that has books. My favorite print version is The Riverside Shakespeare and the Opera House recommends the Folger Shakespeare Editions. (The Folger Shakespeare Library is also an awesome website.) Last resort, read the Google version or download this comprehensive iPhone app (which begs the question: Will Shakespeare's cell phone: iPhone or Droid?).

2. Read a synopsis of the play. Hey, isn't that cheating? Nope. Any way you can deepen your understanding of the story is fair game. You're not being graded. And it's sometimes fun to do a little background reading or compare your sense of the story to "scholarly" takes such as ... well ... SparkNotes.

3. Cue Sheet! The Stonington Opera House has developed a one-stop "cue sheet" that blends history and contemporary life in an easy-to-read approach to the theatrical works. Who does Queen Elizabeth remind you of? Why would she be called "rex" in one of the plays? What role did art play in her life? How has marriage changed in 400 years? The cue sheet out-geeks me.

4. Watch the movie. My favorite Much Ado is the 1993 version directed by the actor Kenneth Branagh. The arrival of the men on horses (at the 7-minute mark) is a triumph of Branagh's stagey brawn. But there's also Denzel Washington with his sexy winks. And Michael Keaton, who may be the most delightfully worst Shakespeare actor ever, delivering a hilarious performance as a nut-case cop. (Keanu Reeves is also in this version, and he really is the worst Shakespeare actor ever.)

5. Listen up. Our guest scholar and my fellow Shakespeare nerd Yu Jin Ko will be joining us onstage for a post-show discussion the weekend of July 9/10. He and I were recently so consumed with excitement over Shakespeare in the summer, we went on The Callie Crossley Show on WGBH radio in Boston to talk about it. You can listen here to two Shakespirited people talk about The Man and His Art -- and why the heat of the season is a magnet for the plays.

6. Follow Much Ado characters on Facebook. That's right: Queen Elizabeth, Beatrice, Hero, Benedik and Claudio are posting. Duh.

7. Become a citizen actor. Community Reads are where regular community members of all ages and experiences sit around a table and read the play aloud. These free events reveal some of the best interpretations of Shakespeare I've ever encountered. Anyone who wants a role gets a role -- you can even request one! We pause occasionally to talk about a word, history, the plot, echoes in current politics or family life. And often we switch roles. Celeb alert: Sometimes actors drop in to offer a teaser from the production. It's a pressure-free environment -- read or listen, stay for all or part. But the invitation is an open one. This year's reads are 4 p.m. June 21 (a one-day marathon!) at Blue Hill Public Library and 7 p.m. June 27 the Deer Isle Library/4 p.m. June 28 at the Stonington Library.

Bonus tip: Read our blog Shake Stonington to find out what Sasha (center), Ann (right) and I -- and other guest bloggers from the creative team -- are thinking about the play, the process and our community.